When Andrew Stein, now Manhattan borough president, was 15, his father, New York politico Jerry Finkelstein, took him to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy. “What are your ambitions?” the president asked the young man. “I thought for a minute,” recalls Stein. “Should I tell the truth?” Plunging in, Stein pointed to the chair behind Kennedy’s oval office desk. “In 30 years, Mr. President, I want to sit there.”
Today, 34-year-old Democrat Andrew Stein (the bowdlerized version of his family name which he now uses) is in hot pursuit of his goal. Last week he grabbed headlines—the sort that mark the politician’s road to success—with revelations of massive irregularities in the purchase of $251-million worth of train undercarriages for the New York subway system. The burgeoning scandal which has led to a $134-million suit by the city includes charges from a former employee of Pullman Incorporated, which built the 1,548 undercarriages known as “trucks,” that the company bribed Metropolitan Transit Authority inspectors to certify the equipment even though quality-control tests had shown it was substandard. “People knew that there was something wrong with those subway undercarriages, but no one was doing anything about it. Now the FBI, the city, everybody is investigating,” says Stein. Then he adds, with the braggadocio that has become his trade mark: “I just have a sense of the issues. Believe me, this could be as big as the nursing-home scandal.”
If it is, Stein stands to be a real winner. When he was a New York State assemblyman his investigation of financial scams and patient neglect in New York nursing homçs led to conviction of several of the institutions’ operators and, not so incidentally, to big publicity for Andrew Stein. Last year he handily defeated Robert Wagner Jr., son of former New York mayor Robert Wagner, for Manhattan borough president in a race that saw each side spend $1 million.
Money has never been a problem for Stein. His multimillionaire father has underwritten every step of his political career since he laid out $300,000 to finance Andrew’s first campaign for state assembly in 1967. “If his father weren’t wealthy, powerful and pushy and as ambitious for his son as Joe Kennedy was for his ... plastic Andy, wearing enough gold jewelry to require bodyguards, would probably be hawking garments on Seventh Avenue,” zings one New York journalist. Retorts Stein: “I never talk politics with my father even though I’ve used his money in my campaigns.”
Jerry Finkelstein’s bankroll, however, is not the only charge against Stein. Critics have repeatedly asserted that his investigations have been motivated more by political opportunism than an outraged conscience. And some point out that much of the actual digging for the incriminating information is done by Stein’s young assistants, who blend idealism with the impulse to hitch their wagon to a rising star. For the current subway investigation, two Stein aids spent more than six months at Transit Authority headquarters, poring over 1,000 pages of correspondence.
To detractors, Stein’s own intellectual prowess also has been arguable. They delight in recalling that he attended four colleges before finally receiving his degree.
Such principles, however, no longer bother Stein. “Look,” he explains, “I think a lot of people were jealous. I’ve been in politics för over 10 years now and those people are still waiting for me to make a mistake. How can you say that’s not smart?” Opponents have indeed learned to take Stein more seriously. Last year his endorsement and financial support for a political unknown defeated once powerful state assembly speaker Stanley Steingut, with whom he had feuded for years. Now Stein makes no secret of his contempt for some of New York’s top Democratic brass, including Governor Hugh Carey and Mayor Koch. “Koch and I, we just don’t get along,” he says. Such quotes make awkward enemies, and Stein’s open quest for next year’s Democratic nomination for New York senator has not won him many allies either. But he remains confident New York’s political establishment will not be able to deny him.
“It bothers people that I come right out with my ambitions,” says Stein. “That’s not supposed to be cricket. But I’ll tell you, I’ll tell anybody, I want to be senator.” Then, self-consciously fingering his PT-109 tie clip, a reminder of the Kennedy years, Stein adds: “I want to be president.” Rita Christopher
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